Sunday, January 6, 2013

Earthquakes, Maybe. But Is Los Angeles Prepared For A Tsunami?

When a typhoon is expected to land inHong Kong, the Hong Kong Observatory is prepared with a comprehensive alert system that issues hourly summaries of weather warnings through the news and radio. Citizens are accustomed to checking their smartphones often about high typhoon levels to know what time they can leave work and go home.
But if a tsunami hit Los Angeles, the entire county would have little reaction time and be largely unprepared, even though an alerting system already exists. Less than 1% of the county’s population is currently registered to receive an emergency warning via their mobile devices. (As of Oct. 30, the department has seen a meager 26,711 county residents registered for the Alert L.A. County Mass Notification System, which sends emergency warnings via text message, e-mail and voice message in case of natural disasters.)
The rest of the county’s population would rely on public service announcements, phone calls to landlines or police and firefighters going door-to-door to relay the department’s emergency alerts.
“Obviously this is not that quick,” said Chris Ipsen, public information officer for the city of Los Angeles Emergency Department. “A quick system would be a warning system, but we’re not going to just sit there and not do anything. We work with what we have.
The number of citizens registered for L.A. County’s alert system is dangerously low, considering the state coastline’s vulnerability to tsunamis. A recent U.S. Geological Survey study found a 40% chance of a major earthquake occurring in the Pacific Northwest region of the state in the next 50 years.
“People need to step up on preparedness because there aren’t going to be enough responders,” said Ipsen.
An effective warning system for such a natural disaster would quickly alert all residents in at-risk areas to move to higher ground. With a population of nearly 4 million people, Ipsen said, only 25% to 30% would be prepared to make it through a tsunami unscathed.
Japan set a high standard for handling natural disasters when touchingreports surfaced of how orderly and civilized ordinary citizens were despite supply shortages after a devastating 9.03 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Following a nuclear crisis, who would think to publish a short cartoon video to explain it to young children? One Japanese artist did.
The effects of the 2011 tsunami in Japan were felt across the Pacific Ocean to earthquake-prone California, which shares the same tectonic plate. Hours after the tsunami struck Japan on March 11 last year, the National Weather Service also reported severe damage to harbors in Santa Cruz and Crescent City, Calif.
Ipsen, who has been working on promoting registration for the alert system, said city officials also recognize the problem, but the lack of funding makes it difficult for any action to be taken.
The city would benefit from a siren system, said Larry Meyerhofer, emergency manager at the L.A. Emergency Management Department, but the cost is high.
“The siren system would be another $5 million to put in and from what I’ve told, another 10% for maintenance every year,” Meyerhofer said. “We’ve pursued grant money, but we’ve had no luck with the federal government.”
Still, Ipsen said residents can prepare for a tsunami and he recommends storing food, a phone charger and disaster kit for the home, vehicle and workplace. He also emphasized communication with loved ones.
“In a natural disaster, people just don’t think like normal because they don’t get what’s happening,” Ipsen said. “It’s the fear of the unknown. But know things like the emergency plan of the school your child attends. Don’t just expect to roll down to school and get Johnny. That’s very important.”
But even if the California coastline were to experience a tsunami, skeptics say the damage would not be devastating.
When the 2011 tsunami hit Japan and California felt the effects, Rich Baratta, director of risk management at the Port of Long Beach, said the port noticed obvious changes in the channel, but there was no real impact.
“The tsunami hit at about 8:30 a.m. but everything was back to normal at about 10 a.m.,” Baratta said. “We had ample time to prepare.”
He also said the biggest advantage of the Port of Long Beach’s location is that it faces south, along with a nearby nine-mile long barrier.
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